Empathy has become something of a buzzword in today’s increasingly polarized society. Years ago, the only time most of us would hear the word “empathy” was when psychologists talked about sociopathic serial murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy on TV crime shows. But what do psychologists mean when they make statements like “Dahmer was unable to feel empathy for his victims,” or “Bundy was a classic psychopath–no morals, no sense of right or wrong, no empathy?“
What Is Empathy?
Dictionary definitions of empathy include this one from Merriam-Webster: “being aware, understanding, vicariously experiencing, and being sensitive to the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of another individual” and this one from the Cambridge Dictionary: ” the ability to imagine another person’s experiences and feelings by putting yourself in that person’s situation.”
Here is a real-world example of the definition of empathy:
Rachel had never liked Roger, her best friend Monica’s boyfriend of one year. Late one night, Monica arrived sobbing and distraught at Rachel’s apartment. Roger had broken up with Monica, claiming he was in love with someone else, a woman he had been seeing for the past three months. Although Rachel had always known Roger was no good, she reserved her judgment, hugged Monica, and listened attentively while Monica talked about how much Roger had hurt and betrayed her. Rachel told Monica several times that she understood how she felt and would help her get through this ordeal.
Rachel could have said things like “I told you a long time ago Roger was a horrible person,” or You see what happened when you didn’t ditch that guy months ago?” Instead, Rachel empathized with Monica by indicating she genuinely felt and shared Monica’s unhappiness.
How would you have reacted if you had been Rachel, who intuitively sensed from Day 1 that Roger was not a nice person but couldn’t persuade Monica to stop seeing him? Would you have felt sorry for Monica, or would you have felt indifferent and vindicated?
Is There Such a Thing as Lack of Empathy Disorder?
Empathy could be considered a deeper form of compassion that goes beyond simply feeling sorry for someone. When you empathize with another person’s distress, you are sharing that distress, actually experiencing that emotion with another human being. The common expression “I feel sorry for (him) (her) (them)” means you cognitively understand why they are upset but, for one reason or another, aren’t inclined or capable of absorbing the full extent of their emotional state.
Neuroscientists recently discovered that empathy appears to have emerged at some point in the human evolution timeline. In fact, primitive patterns of empathy have been observed in dogs, rats, and primates. What’s even more interesting is that neuroscientists are learning that empathy may have a genetic basis, which could help explain why some people are more empathetic than others.
Research also tells us that childhood experiences significantly influence your ability to empathize or not empathize. Some studies found that children who suffer from abuse, neglect, and are raised in a “hostile family environment” are more prone to antisocial behavior, aggression, and lack of empathy as adults.
Although lack of empathy disorder is not listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), it could be one of many signs of a serious mental illness. However, people who lack empathy do not necessarily need psychological counseling. High-functioning autistic individuals, such as those with Asperger’s Syndrome, are known for often lacking social skills, being emotionally flat, and lacking empathy. Trying to cope with anxiety disorders, depression, phobias, and other mental health problems can cause a person to lack empathy, too, simply because they are distracted by their own psychological issues.
Is Lack of Empathy a Mental Illness?
Have you ever been told you lack empathy? Do you know someone who may have lack of empathy disorder? Characteristics of people who lack empathy include:
- Quick to criticize others without considering what that person could be going through or feeling
- Appearing coldly indifferent towards people who are less fortunate
- Always viewing events through a “black or white” lens (they are right and everybody else is wrong)
- Difficulty maintaining steady relationships with family or friends
- Preferring to talk about themselves. They don’t care or attempt to listen to what anybody else has to say
- Blaming people for their own problems even when those problems are unavoidable (example: Fred’s house was destroyed by a tornado. His neighbor Al, who lives down the street, blames Fred for the destruction because “he didn’t open his windows” to help reduce the pressure of the tornado. Of course, Al opened his windows and his house did not sustain damage–but only because the tornado did not touch down near his home.)
Many people cannot empathize with another person’s suffering but can continue living a fairly normal life. They can hold down jobs, have a loose set of friends, and even get married. However, when signs of lack of empathy disorder are accompanied by signs of sociopathy, the need for mental health treatment becomes critical to that person’s well-being and for the well-being of others.
What differentiates lack of empathy from sociopathy? True sociopaths like serial killers feel no remorse or guilt over committing reprehensible acts. They have no sense of morals, ethics, or concern for others. Sociopaths can appear to be personable, charming, smart, and even charismatic. They are also master manipulators who use people to get what they want, and that includes satisfying the urge to physically or emotionally hurt others.
Can Someone Learn to be More Empathetic?
Developing empathy begins in childhood. Children raised in warm, loving households are much more likely to become empathetic adults. If you have always found it difficult to empathize with others, you might consider counseling to resolve issues involving a troubled childhood. The good news is that research has discovered that people can learn to be more empathetic by consistently making a good-faith attempt to:
- When relevant during a conversation, share your own problems that are similar to what others are talking about. Show that you are truly listening to them by making eye contact and nodding to indicate you understand how they feel.
- Maintaining eye contact is vital to learning how to be more empathetic. Don’t look around the room, check your text messages, or fidget like you are impatient.
- Think about what you are about to say before saying it. If it is sarcastic, inconsiderate, or accusatory, don’t say it. It’s better to just continue listening and remaining silent than to say something hurtful.
- Consider doing volunteer work. Helping individuals who are less fortunate than you is a great way to work on improving your empathetic skills.
- Read self-help books about ways to increase your empathy. Here are five books you can find right now on Amazon: Empathy Books.
Should Someone Seek Help for Lack of Empathy?
Lacking empathy can significantly interfere with your ability to enjoy long-term, heartfelt relationships with family members and friends. Lack of empathy disorder may also hamper your chances of being promoted at work. If you’ve been told you are not empathetic and/or suspect that an inability to be empathetic is related to a mental health or drug or alcohol problem, reach out to us anytime for a free consultation. We may be able to help you address the underlying cause, so you can be more effective at work and fulfilled in your relationships